Where are you writing from today?
My living room, like the law-abiding citizen that I am.
What excites you about judging the 2020 Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award?
Judging is fun! People can be quite cynical about literary prizes, but as a critic I enjoy the process a lot. There’s something incredibly useful about having to justify your assessment to the rest of the judging panel — it keeps you honest, keeps you on your toes intellectually. I also like the collaborative nature of it; it’s a nice change from the routine of what is normally a rather solitary occupation. One thing that stands out for me about the Young Writer of the Year Award is the breadth of the eligibility criteria: it usually makes for an eclectic shortlist, which is very welcome.
What interests you about new writing in 2020?
Even before the Coronavirus outbreak we were living in interesting times, and that was reflected in a lot of the new writing that was coming through, most notably in the recent trend for novels and nonfiction that engaged with themes around nature and climate change. I expect this will continue, and rightly so. But I don’t necessarily believe good literature has to ‘speak to the contemporary moment’, in an overt, self-conscious way, in order to matter — I’m equally interested in work that is eccentric, oddball and obscure.
What are you hoping for in the submissions this year, and what are you looking for in an emerging writer?
On a purely technical level I’d say what appeals to me most of all — even more than topical or worthy subject matter — is flair. Obviously that’s something you can hone over time but in certain particularly talented writers it’s evident quite early on. You know it when you see it; a certain fearlessness.
Why is it important that we support new voices, at this point in time in particular?
It’s a difficult moment for the publishing industry. Book launches are being postponed; the arts pages of many newspapers and magazines are shrinking due to the squeeze on finances brought about by the Coronavirus crisis. Who knows how long it will last, but for the foreseeable future it’s going to be that bit harder for emerging writers to get their work noticed. Initiatives like this are now more important than ever.
What are you reading at the moment and what do you like about it?
I’m currently halfway through Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, which was recently reissued by Faber. I’m enjoying it immensely. It’s a perfect blend of all the things I like: melancholic; simultaneously funny and serious; and just a little bit silly. I’m using this period of enforced idleness to acquaint myself with some independent literary periodicals. I’ve recently taken out subscriptions to The Fence — a smart, irreverent London-based quarterly launched last year — and a US-based journal called The Point. I’ve also been re-reading Howard Hughes’ Wikipedia page, which contains some great tips on self-isolation.
Houman Barekat is a judge for the 2020 Young Writer of the Year Award. The submission period for this year’s prize closes on Monday 22 June. Enter now